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Omaha Tri-Faith Pioneers Seeing the Fruits of Their Interfaith Collaborative Take Shape

May 26, 2012 9 comments

You wouldn’t necessarily think of Omaha, Neb. as a place for an interfaith collaborative involving the three Abrahamic faith groups but that’s exactly what it is thanks to the Tri-Faith Initiative, a non-profit moving ever closer to its plan for a church, a synagogue, and a mosque on a single campus.  Like most Midwest cities Omaha’s a decidedly Christian stronghold with quite small Jewish and Muslim populations.  It’s also a place where diversity hasn’t always been celebrated or embraced.  Yet the Tri-Faith is an impossible to ignore reality here that’s making waves near and far.  My story below, which is to appear in a future edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com), tries to get at how it is this partnership has been able to reach this point and find itself poised to realize something that perhaps has never been done before, anywhere.  I’m proud it’s happening where I live.  My blog contains a profile I did of Tri-Faith executive director Nancy Kirk, who like all the principals in this endeavor is a highly accomplished person of diverse interests.  What unites them all is a sincere desire to do the right thing by moving past dialogue to action where interfaith relations are concerned.  You’ll also find on this blog a story I did a few years ago on something called Project Interfaith and its director, Beth Katz, and a very long piece on the interfaith relationship forged by two famous figures, Rev. Edward Flangan, the founder of Boys Town, and his close friend and supporter, Henry Monsky.  A smattering of other religious themed stories I’ve done are also on the blog.

 

 

Dr. Syed Mohiuddin and Rabbi Aryeh Azriel

 

 

Omaha Tri-Faith Pioneers Seeing the Fruits of Their Interfaith Collaborative Take Shape

©by Leo Adam Biga

To appear in a future edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha’s not always embraced diversity but the local Tri-Faith Initiative may be a history-making model of interfaith cooperation. It’s proceeding with an audacious plan to locate a church, a synagogue, a mosque and an ecumenical center on a combined 35-acre campus.

Organizers say they’ve not found an equivalent gathering of the three Abrahamic faith groups – Christianity, Judaism, Islam – in a single dedicated setting. Not surprisingly, the project’s drawing much attention from media and scholarly attention. Observers are struck by how this partnership between the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, Temple Israel and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture has gone from concept to dawning reality in only six years.

The initiative echoes local community engagement efforts from the past – Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties – and present – Ak-Sar-Ben, Omaha Community Foundation, Building Bright Futures, Empowerment Network – that coalesce various partners to tackle social-cultural needs.

The Reader met with four “pioneers” behind the Tri-Faith experiment for their take on how the initiative has managed sustaining itself. They say one reason why this alliance has gotten so far so fast is that mere dialogue was never the end goal. Rather, it was a means to realize a brick-and-mortar sanctuary for promoting ongoing interfaith relationships.

“There are many wonderful dialogues going on across the country and around the world, and I’ve been involved in some of those, where people come together for great meetings to talk about interfaith issues,” says Nebraska Episcopal Diocese Canon for Tri-Faith Ministries Timothy Anderson, who will lead the unnamed Episcopal church slated for the campus. “But then you go back to your hotel, pack your bag, get on a plane and fly home. The uniqueness of this is that we are home. The next day we wake up and my neighbor to the right is still Jewish and my neighbor to the left is still Muslim and I have to learn each day how to live in my faith to love my neighbor as myself.”

 

 

Outside the pitched battleground of the Middle East, Jews and Muslims have every reason to be friends.

“I think Muslims are in a way in America the Jews of the past,” says Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Temple Israel. “I think there is a tendency from time to time to select a new scapegoat. Jews are extremely aware of the ‘game’ that was played with their lives. We paid a price for being a scapegoat for many, many years.

“There is a level of understanding on the part of the Jew when the game is being played with other minority groups. Until the Obama presidency there were many opportunities for Americans to denigrate or to view Muslims as The Other, the stranger, the one that is not welcome, similar in a way to how Jews were treated.”

Azriel says progress between peoples of different faiths or cultures can only occur “when you’re able to step away from where you are and go to uncomfortable places.” Getting past surface niceties to deep interpersonal connections, he says, is what’s made the Jewish-Muslim relationship work in Omaha. Years before the Tri-Faith, he notes, Temple reached out to invite the Muslim community to celebrate Thanksgiving at the synagogue. Muslims have reciprocated by inviting the Jewish community to their celebrations.

“It’s mainly about relationships. If you don’t visit each other’s home, if you’re not in relationship with people, the dialogue becomes completely nebulous and artificial after awhile,” says Azriel.

It’s why, for him, meaningful interfaith exchanges must go beyond talk and tolerance to practice collaborative good works, such as creating a neighborhood where three faith groups co-exist in harmony.

He acknowledges some Temple members resist the partnership. The other groups report similar reluctance or skepticism. It’s meant less than 100 percent buy-in. But that’s where Azriel says leadership can make a difference.

“I really think a clergy that doesn’t challenge his congregation, doesn’t comfort those that are challenged, but also doesn’t disturb those that are comfortable should not lead a congregation. Sometimes you need to be stubborn and continue with the dreaming. So we continue walking on the bridge, even though at times it doesn’t look completely solid and safe. So what? There is a price to pay for daring and a price to pay for stagnation.

“You don’t just wait for something to happen but you mobilize all the resources together to accomplish this. That’s what’s so unique about this combination. All of us know dreams can only be achieved after hard work.”

Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, Islamic Institute president and co-founder and chair of the Department of Medicine at Creighton University, says the relationships hinge on mutual respect and trust. “That’s where it starts.”

In late 2011 the partners backed their words with financial stakes by announcing the purchase of adjoining parcels of land at the site of the former Ironwood Country Club, on the southeast corner of 132nd and Pacific, now part of the Sterling Ridge mixed-use development. The Tri-Faith vision took another major step to fruition when Temple, which completed its $25 million building campaign, broke ground April 15 on its new synagogue. It’s expected to open in August 2013. The other two partners are in the planning and fund-raising stages of their own buildings. A $2.5 million anonymous matching gift kick-started the Islamic Institute’s fund drive.

A fourth structure, the Tri-Faith Center, will be a shared, nondenominational facility for educational-cultural events and activities. It’s also in the planning stage.

The level of support shown for this faith-based collaborative defies the tensions and conflicts that keep different religious traditions apart.

Temple Israel groundbreaking

Rendering of the new Temple Israel synagogue

 

 

The feel good story of the project’s formation is already becoming lore.

As the oldest and largest synagogue in town, Temple long ago outgrew its present facility. Whereas the reform Jewish congregation traces its history back to 1872 and serves 750-plus families, the Islamic Institute formed only in 2006 and counts but a fraction of Temple’s members. Still, the Institute needs a permanent home of its own to accommodate a growing Muslim population. Each cast its gaze out west, where most members live.

Temple already had the experience of a Christian neighbor in First United Methodist Church to the north and of a shared parking lot with the Omaha Community Playhouse to the east. The Jewish and Islamic communities already enjoyed a rapport strengthened when, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Azriel led Temple members in a cordon around the local mosque as a show of solidarity. He and his Tri-Faith bretheren describe it as “a pivotal moment” that “forged” the relationship.

Temple’s search for a new home took a collaborative turn when member and Tri-Faith board chair Bob Freeman broached the possibility of building with a faith partner. Not only would there be cost savings from a joint site selection and shared amenities, but opportunities to do interfaith programming.

Azriel says the congregation has “a history of being on the cutting edge of justice work,” which is a theme in his own career. He initiated a Black/Jewish dialogue series at Temple and his justice work has earned him various honors. He insists he’s hardly alone in tackling social issues. “The leadership of this congregation has been deeply involved in the daily life of this town. So many of our people are on the cutting edge of philanthropy, sit on nonprofit boards and are basically the bloodline of what this city is all about.”

It wasn’t long before Azriel and Mohiuddin spoke about partnering. After consulting with their boards they decided to pursue an interfaith project with a Christian participant. After the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha rejected the idea the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska was approached. It just happened to be considering a new church in West O on land held in reserve. Then-bishop Joe Burnett asked Anderson to explore joining the two other faith groups in a joint venture. Anderson met Freeman over a game of golf to discuss the possibilities.

Rev. Canon Tim Anderson

 

 

Ironwood proved a symbolic spot for the Tri-Faith. It was founded as Jewish-only Highland Country Club in 1924 in response to Jews being barred from other clubs. Owing to Omaha’s declining Jewish population and a desire to be inclusive, Highland eventually opened to all who could afford it. Tri-Faith partners now refer to Hell Creek, which runs through the property, as Heaven’s Bridge.

All of it plays well in the press. But as the founders take great pains explaining, none of it would have happened without the deliberate efforts of people committed to putting aside differences to make tangible an interfaith community built from the ground up.

Azriel says, “Here is something we are doing intentionally. This is not haphazard. this is not by coincidence. We decided those three communities have to be together and then you bring them to a neighborhood to create it. So there’s a deep intentionality that emerges as a result of the comfort level of the relationships. You can’t get there by coincidence.”

At the end of the day, says Freeman, it’s not platitudes or mission statements or white papers that drive the Tri-Faith.

“As is often the case in collaborative projects it’s the people that make it work and we’ve had a group of amazing people committed to working on this. They’ve sustained that enthusiasm and commitment over five-six years. When I look at the people who have been around the table every one of them is very successful in their own walk of life. These are people who when they take something on they don’t fail, they lead it to a successful conclusion.”

Freeman, who’s worked on several Omaha collaboratives, says the Tri-Faith has been “an unequivocally positive experience.” An attorney by trade, he’s quick to point out that “we’ve had interactions that have been less than perfect but that’s life.”

“But life is about overcoming challenges and obstacles and recognizing different perspectives and being accommodating and continuing to move forward when you’re doing the right thing,” he says, “and we’ve had an uncommon aggregation of really strong, successful, goal-oriented people who’ve just willed this thing forward and been really good at problem solving.”

The Tri-Faith posed many potentially intractable, deal-breaker issues but Freeman says great care was taken to mitigate and mediate these.

“We did some things early on that probably helped contribute to success. We immediately talked about some of the harder issues and had a consensus on how we would address them, so we were able to take them off the table.”

Azriel concedes that when there’s an international flashpoint in Jewish-Muslim relations, fears, insecurities and resentments surface.

“Of course this comes up always as part of the discussion, issues of trust, of loyalty, of what-if scenarios. So you have definitely some of the Israeli-Arab conflict penetrating the conversation and people asking questions or suggesting that maybe its not the right way.

“You talk a lot, you try to respond, you try to bring the person who is asking to a level of comfort but the most important part is to invite them to a meeting with Muslims and Episcopalians.”

It’s in breaking bread and participating in celebrations with each other, he and his colleagues say, that people of divergent backgrounds and beliefs find their common humanity. That’s why the Tri-Faith sponsors events that bring people of different faiths together.

The Tri-Faith made its first big public splash in 2009 with the communal Dinner in Abraham’s Tent. An annual picnic is held. More events have followed, including workshops, panels, a children’s camp and high school programs.

“We were able to establish positive momentum and credibility through programs and projects we pulled off very successfully,” Freeman says.

 

 

Events outside its control become teachable moments. For example, the organization used the 2008 Gaza conflict to present a unified voice. Mohiuddin says, “We were able to come together and wrote a joint editorial in the World-Herald which expressed the concerns we had     without blaming anybody. I thought it was a remarkable accomplishment.”

“I think that was a crucial point in our relationships, that we could move through that and stay together and be of one voice against violence on any side,” says Anderson.

Freeman says the Tri-Faith was able to draft a statement because the partners had set a precedent for addressing the elephants in the room.

“If you’re going to put three houses of worship together in a neighborhood setting there’s some things about that that can be threatening to one another and we immediately got into that. We talked about how we’re not trying to influence each other in our intramural religious efforts.”

In other words, no prosleltyzing. A memorandum of understanding laid it all out.

“An understanding was reached not to go after each other’s congregations to recruit members,” Freeman says. “We recognized the need to be separate, the need to be autonomous. There has to be autonomy. If any of the three want to do something internally in their congregation, in their building, on their land they have to be able to do that and neither of the other two should have any say at all in what that is. Certainly there can be a sensitivity to the impact that might have on your neighbors but nobody should tell anybody else how to govern or operate within their congregational religious life.

“One of the byproducts of that was we don’t want anybody’s faith to be watered down. We’re not trying to make Judaism more Christian, we’re not trying to make Islam more Jewish. So the separateness has to make us independent and even stronger in our own faiths and we’ve seen how that can effectively work.”

Mohiuddin’s experience bears out Freeman’s words. “The most important thing we’re doing is expressing the beliefs we have and as a result we understand our own faith better than we did before because we have to explain it to people and that actually makes your faith stronger, it doesn’t weaken it,” Mohiuddin says.

 

 

“I think we’ve become better Christians, Jews, Muslims by entering into this and trying to live out what our faith really says it’s about, and it’s not about politics, it’s not about power,” says Anderson.

Freeman points to other things the Tri-Faith’s done to solidify itself.

“We incorporated and formed a 501c organization early on (2006) so we would have an identity. We were then able to do some fundraising and get some money in, which enabled us to hire professional help along the way and get good consulting input, so it wasn’t entirely a   volunteer-sustained effort. I think a lot of us felt expanding beyond just a bunch volunteers who met for coffee lent it credibility.”

Two key professionals brought in were Nancy Kirk and Vic Gutman, Omahans with long experience in arts administration, communications and public event planning. Kirk came on as executive director in 2008 and Gutman as media relations director soon after.

Freeman believes the city deserves credit, too, as “a nurturing, incubator environment for multi-group, creative, collaborative initiatives and projects.” He adds, “I think there’s a willingness to try and work together in recognition that something can be greater than the sum of its parts. There are amazing public-private partnerships that develop here. These models exist all over town and result in people working together and trusting each other.”

“The high level of trust people were willing to have in the Tri-Faith Initiative early on,” he says, “is a byproduct of a community spirit that fosters these kinds of things.”

Mohiuddin, who came from his native India to complete his medical studies at Creighton University decades ago, says, “Omaha has been my home for over 40 years and I’ve gotten to know the city, its culture, its style, and it’s just very welcoming.”

Azriel, a native of Israel by way of Baltimore, says the Tri-Faith is comprised of partners “not only predisposed to welcoming The Other but whose religious faith told them this is the way. It will be very hard to create this same scenario in people who are faithless. I think the right moment came and the right people assembled around the table, and then life has never been the same.”

Mohiuddin says, “If you look at any of the wonderful things that happen in the world, you need a core, usually a spark, which acts as a nucleus around which everything turns. It just happens to be in Omaha, it just happens to be us.”

Like his fellow pioneers Mohiuddin says the Tri-Faith could have easily disbanded by now “if we had allowed ourselves to get discouraged by the dissenting voices, if we did not have the courage of our own convictions.” Indeed, he attributes its survival to “the conviction of the founding members to stay with it,” adding, “We had such a strong belief that what we were doing was necessary and that this was the right thing to do and the right time to do it.”

On a more practical level, says Freeman, the partners are motivated to see the project through because it means a new house of worship for each faith group, plus an interfaith center. It’s the prospect of bringing these “homes” to completion, strengthening all three faith communities in the process, that supersedes everything else.

The Tri-Faith pioneers welcome the attention the initiative is generating and hope their work provides a framework for more interfaith collaboratives. But Mohiuddin speaks for his colleagues when he says, “I can’t be distracted” from the work at hand.

The partners have come too far now to be sidetracked and lose sight of the prize. Not when the campus Mohiuddin calls “our dream land” is so close at hand.

Faith without action is dead and the Tri-Faith is nothing if not an action-oriented movement. One with a life all its own and a promised land  to be filled.

Nancy Kirk: Arts Maven, Author, Communicator, Entrepreneur, Interfaith Champion

October 21, 2011 6 comments

There are people who talk about doing things and people who do things. Nancy Kirk is the latter. That’s not to say she finishes everything she starts. Like those unfinished manuscripts of hers she’d like to get to one day. But lots of us can say that. She’s also a model of reinvention – of following one path in life and then finding a new direction and then another to feed her ever-searching sensibility. In truth, all of her paths have followed a similar humanistic and cultural track. She began her career in the arts, then went entrepreneurial in the antique quilt and fabrics world, and more recently has taken up interfaith work as executive director of an initiative whose ultimate aim is to bring together a synagouge, a church, and a mosque on the same campus in Omaha, Neb. The following profile I wrote about this intriguing woman will be the November cover story in the New Horizons. Read it here first.

 

 

 

 

Nancy Kirk: Arts Maven, Author, Communicator, Entrepreneur, Interfaith Champion

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

 

Long before becoming executive director of the Tri-Faith Initiative, the Omaha collaborative that finds Jews, Christians and Muslims building a shared worship campus, Nancy (Timmins) Kirk made a name for herself in the quilting world. Only not as a quilter, she’s quick to point out, but rather as a designer and aficionado.

It’s only natural to assume she’s a quiltmaker since she and her late husband owned The Kirk Collection, an antique fabrics supply, restoration and appraisal business that gained an international reputation and clientele. Nancy still carries on aspects of the business by conducting workshops, making presentations and producing DVDs and CDs on antique quilt restoration.

“I still love the teaching and the writing and the speaking,” she said. But the grind of multi-day conferences takes more of a toll these days on Kirk, who has survived a heart attack and open heart surgery.

Much like her work with the nonprofit Tri-Faith, whose groundbreaking plan for a synagogue, church and mosque on adjoining property is drawing worldwide interest, Kirk came to quilting an inveterate seeker always curious to know more. She’s learned enough to speak with not only passion but authority about quilting as art, craft and healing process and quilts as potent, touchstone objects of utility, aesthetics and humanity.

“Quilting serves many different purposes,” she said. “For some people it’s a craft activity, a stress reliever. Studies have shown the activity of quilting changes the brain’s alpha waves. For other people it’s an art medium, a very expressive way for a designer to work. For others it becomes very therapeutic.”

Quilts evoke intimate feelings tied to memories, rituals and relationships.

“For the viewer or the recipient, quilts exist for people at an emotional level that is really very primitive,” she said. “People respond with a part of their brain that usually has no language. Quilts represent people’s deep emotional connections with home, with comfort, with safety, with love. You see people wrapping up in quilts or touching quilts and being reminded of parents and grandparents and places they used to live. And you start hearing these wonderful stories.”

The way Kirk sees it, every quilt has a story to tell.

“All you have to do is plant yourself near a quilt, particularly an older quilt, at a quilt show and by the end of the day you’ll hear dozens of stories from people because they’re so evocative, especially in this part of the country, where people grew up with quilts. They’re very powerful objects.”

Before The Kirk Collection became a mail order source of antique fabrics for quilters the business made its name as a supplier to Hollywood film and television studio designers and costumers in need of period materials. Nancy and Bill Kirk provided fabrics that ended up in costumes of such major motion pictures as Titanic, Forest Gump and Wyatt Earp and network shows like Brooklyn Bridge and Homefront.

The couple ran the business out of their Bemis Park home before opening a store at 45th and Military Ave. Their customer roster extended to Europe and Asia.

Before she got into quilting, Kirk worked in the arts, where her aesthetic sensibilities were honed to give her a deep appreciation for not only the fine and performing arts but antiques, including textiles and fabrics.

The daughter of university professor parents who divorced when she and her sister were young, Kirk grew up in her native New York City and a variety of other locales.

She absorbed a classic liberal arts education at Antioch (Ohio) college, where she studied social sciences and journalism. She’s put her writing skill set to good use over the years as an arts administrator and public relations professional. Her unplanned fascination with arts management was fired when she spent two years with an Antioch theater project in Baltimore, MD.

“At this funny little free theater we brought in very experimental theater and dance companies from all over the world — The Medicine Show, Pilobolus. It was the out of town try-out place for experimental theater and dance. I became absolutely in love with experimental theater and dance and I was exposed to some of the best in the world. We were always at odds with the state and local arts councils because we were doing and promoting this work that was very outside the mainstream.”

By the time she earned her master’s in arts management from the University of Illinois and moved to Omaha to work a paid internship with the Nebraska Arts Council, she found herself in the midst of a cutting edge arts movement here. She arrived only a week after the devastating 1975 tornado and neither its widespread damage nor the paralyzing blizzard of ’75 that followed that winter could scare her away. Neither did the relative uproar over the Bicentennial I-80 sculpture project, edgy stagework by the Omaha Magic Theatre and the counterculture head shops, avant garde films and art happenings in the then-fledgling Old Market.

Indeed, she was won over by how open-minded Nebraskans were to new ideas.

“In all the time I worked for the state arts council and then 11 more years for the local arts council there was no one who said we shouldn’t have art.”

She recalled an I-80 sculptures forum in some backwater Neb. town where “an old man in coveralls got up and said, ‘I sure don’t understand this stuff, but I want to make sure my grandchildren have a chance to see it,’ and that was the attitude pretty much for anything.” One of her roles with the state arts council was traveling to rural hamlets and educating the local populace about the touring programs coming their way.

She said resistance or suspicion to unfamiliar art disappeared when she framed the needs of artists “in terms that (rural) audiences could understand from their own perspective,” adding, “That was a big part of my job.” Like the time she went to a small town in advance of a touring opera program. She laid to rest concerns singers were divas for requiring humidifiers in their rooms by explaining that the artists needed the devices to keep their throat and voice supple in the same way farm tractors or threshers need routine maintenance to run right. Once she put things in practical terms, she said, humidifiers were readily volunteered.

“I came to have a real appreciation of what arts councils were doing in terms of opening up the doors to the arts in a lot of communities where there had really been nothing outside the high school play. A lot of them shied away from cutting edge kind of work.”

The arts councils that sprung up in the ’60s and ’70s, she said, “were bringing the arts out of the urban areas and into the rest of the country.” For example, she said the Omaha Community Playhouse formed the Nebraska Theatre Caravan “and took theater into towns that had never had professional theater and Opera Omaha organized small touring evenings of opera.”

Visual artists, dancers, authors, poets and others began criss-crossing the state to present before general audiences or to do residencies in schools. Her focus on bringing the arts to underserved populations extended to a visual art program in the state penitentiary, where even death row inmates were provided art supplies for their self-expression. Her work introduced her to the man who became her husband, Bill Kirk, who was a theater actor-director and kindred spirit.

She authored an award-winning book, Lobbying for the Arts, used all over the country.

An advantage Omaha owns when it comes to supporting the arts and other things, she said, is that it’s still small and accommodating enough to provide ready “access to power,” unlike other cities she’s lived where access is limited to few. “Here, all you had to do was pick up the phone and ask for an audience with Willis Strauss or Peter Kiewit or Leo Daly or John Bookout. You could be heard. They might not agree with you, they might not end up supporting your cause, but you could make your case. I think it’s very much the same attitude that created Ak-Sar-Ben. It’s this place of kind of infinite possibility and egalitarianism.”

 

 

Nancy Kirk discussing quilt restoration

 

 

She said Omaha’s can-do spirit is what sold her on this place and has kept her put.

“This is the kind of city I wanted to live in. I think this same spirit of civic work still exists now. It’s an attitude that makes the most extraordinary things possible.”

“Tri-Faith is another example of it,” she said of the initiative whose partners are Temple Israel, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture, “Not only was there no significant opposition to it, there was a kind of, Well, I don’t quite understand it, but what can we do to help? attitude. When it came to raise money for the land four foundations stepped up.”

The intended Tri-Faith campus is on the grounds of the former Highland Country Club, which Jews formed decades ago when denied admittance to goy clubs. The campus plan is part of the Sterling Ridge mixed-use development in southwest Omaha that’s presently undergoing site preparation work. Plans call for three worship centers — one for each participating faith group — and a shared interfaith education center Kirk refers to as “the meeting place.”

Support for the project, which launched in 2006, has come together quickly from large though as yet undisclosed donors.

“Basically the donations have been made because it’s good for the city,” said Kirk. “They see this vision that this makes Omaha a better place to live for everybody.”

Tri-Faith was conceived in response to a seemingly mundane dilemma.

“The genesis is parking lots. This is a project about parking lots — very seriously,” Kirk said.

Temple Israel synagogue has long been in need of a new site, having outgrown its current building and plot just east of 72nd and Cass. With its congregation largely residing now in suburbia, a move west only made sense. When synagogue leaders began contemplating what they’d like in a new site, said Kirk, they were “very intentional about finding good neighbors” like the ones they have today in the Omaha Community Playhouse and First United Methodist Church.

She said when Temple heard that the Institute was planning to build a new mosque in west Omaha synagogue member Bob Freeman, Rabbi Aryeh Azriel and others contacted AISC president and co-founder Dr. Syed Mohiuddin,  “to discuss looking for land together to share parking lots.”

 

 

 

 

Consistent with hospitality being “such a central concept to all the Abrahamic faith traditions,” she said, representatives from each group came bearing mounds of food for the meeting. That first confab led to more. She said, “When they eventually began talking matters of faith rather than concrete it occurred to them they had two of the three major Abrahamic traditions represented.” As a potential Christian partner the parties approached the Catholic archdiocese of Omaha, whose then-archbishop, Rev. Elden Curtiss, declined. They next made overtures to the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, whose then-leader, Rev. Joe Burnett, accepted.

In 2006 Tri-Faith was incorporated as a 501c3 and since then the organization has presented several interfaith events to promote understanding, all while working toward a common goal of a shared campus. The endeavor has made headlines around the world at a time when religious and cultural differences continue to be serious dividing points. Building bridges is an appealing idea as the globe grows ever flatter and more interconnected thanks to online social networking and to grassroots movements like those of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.

“It turns out the parking lots are such a metaphor for what’s going on in the world because the fact is we all have to share this earth. — it’s how do we live together,” said Kirk.

Her Tri-Faith involvement began in 2008, when it might be said her decades-long quest for spiritual fulfillment reached a new plane. In some ways, she acknowledges, she’s a most unlikely director of an interfaith project because for the first 35 years of her life she struggled with matters of faith. Then again, her uneasy journey steeled her for leading an initiative about celebrating differences.

“My father was a fallen-away Catholic, my mother was a fallen-away Unitarian, so I was brought up with no particular religion, in a household that wavered somewhere between agnosticism and atheism. But both parents allowed us to be exposed to some variety of religions. There was no objection if we went to church with friends.”

On some level, Kirk’s faith odyssey echoed that of her divining rod maternal grandmother, Sophia Lyon Fahs, who was ordained a Unitarian minister at 80 and wrote dozens of religious education books. Her last book, The Church Across the Street, was a comparative religions study. The liberal, progressive themes of inclusion and tolerance her grandmother advocated are in line with those of Kirk and the Tri-Faith Initiative.

Kirk comes from a long line of matriarchal figures and accomplished professionals. Her great-grandmother wrote books about her Presbyterian missionary work in China.

So it wasn’t as if Kirk didn’t have ready examples of faith to follow. In fact, she said, “I envied people who had great faith but I didn’t understand the experience and didn’t expect to ever have it. I was never anti-religious, I just was not religious.”

Then, in the midst of building her arts career, what she least expected happened.

“I was one of those bolt of lightening people. Literally in the course of a 24-hour period I came to a very deep belief in the existence of God. I was at home and all of a sudden I felt this incredible sense of certainty. It was so different than the kind of rational approach I’d always had to life. That’s when I started searching and doing a lot of reading. I didn’t talk to anyone about it really for a very long time.”

Before becoming a couple Nancy and Bill Kirk were friends. On a long road trip for an arts program she told him about her spiritual awakening and “how confusing it all felt” because it didn’t necessarily jive with what organized religion prescribed.

“And he said something very helpful — that the personal experience you feel is faith and all the stuff you hear in church and in the bible and other sources is belief, and belief is what happens in your head and faith is what happens in your heart …and that both are OK. The part that is faith is intended to be a questioning process throughout your life. Your responsibility as a human being  is to continue to explore and try to understand and to go through periods of disbelief.”

“The deeper you explore that abyss that you’re always afraid you’ll fall into and never come out of,” she said, “the more you discover there are those dark nights of the soul when you feel faith has deserted you. But usually it’s the belief that’s deserted you, and the faith part can lead you back away from the edge of the precipice. And then you rebuild the belief.”

A Tri-Faith Initiative picnic

 

 

After being stricken with the spirit, Kirk tried on a number of faiths but it was only four years ago she “came to the Episcopal Church.” She’s a member of St. Andrew’s. She was finally swayed to the denomination, which she’d flirted with before, after seeing the church’s presiding bishop in the U.S., Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori on CBS. “I said, ‘I would follow that woman anywhere,’ so when it came to look for a new church I looked for an Episcopal church.”

Coming from where she did to where she is today, Kirk said, has informed and shaped the spiritual life she enjoys today and her work with Tri-Faith.

“So this rather eclectic religious background of growing up outside any one particular faith tradition and not necessarily having a particular belief in any of them for the larger part of my life in some ways really helped prepare me for what I’m doing now. Because I came to the habit of questioning, researching, listening hard and trying to understand other people’s faith journeys as part of my own.”

The discernment she does by opening herself to other beliefs enriches her life and her faith. “I find it fascinating and each of those encounters helps me refine my own faith and without any denial of my own tradition as I have adopted it now.”

Kirk felt drawn to engage in the Tri-Faith experiment after taking an inventory of her life a few years ago and deciding to embark on a new path she felt called to follow.

“When I turned 60 (she’s 64 today ) I made a 44-year life plan. I’ve always made long range plans. Women in my family thankfully tend to be long-lived. My grandmother died at 103. My mother died at 94. Both were active until the end. So it seemed like 104 was a good age to shoot for. I had become really fascinated with the changing role of religion in a pluralistic  society. The Kirk Collection was kind of winding down, I’d closed our retail store. I didn’t want to cut another piece of fabric ever again in my life. After about 25 years in the quilt world I was ready for a change. My husband had died. It was time to reinvent myself again.”

She didn’t tell anyone (at first) about her new life plan. Then, she said, she “finally got up the nerve” to tell her business coach and much to her relief “he didn’t laugh.” “Once I said it out loud it was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do — some kind of ministry.’ Lay or ordained, it didn’t matter, but this is the subject area I wanted to be in.”

She felt compelled to give back.

“Sixty is a great place to start because chances are you’ve done pretty much what you intended to do professionally and getting your kids raised up. It’s not really like a bucket list but there’s still a chance to contribute meaningfully to the world. We want to make sure by the end of our life we know our life had meaning and this is a great age at which to be doing it. We don’t have a lot of the distractions we had before of raising kids and building career. Sixty to 100 there’s a chance to do things that really change the world and getting it done is more important than getting credit.”

The philosophy reminds her of her college’s motto: “Be ashamed to die until you’ve won some victory for humanity.”

Fatefully, a group of Tri-Faith board members made a presentation at St. Andrew one Sunday. Until then, she’d not even heard of the venture but she was immediately and powerfully attracted to its vision of three faiths partnering together.

“This is what I’m supposed to be doing,” is what she said she thought to herself. It wasn’t long before she offered her services to help spread Tri-Faith’s message and dream. When she learned the group was seeking an executive director she made a proposal and was hired. She saw the mission as a perfect fit for many reasons, not the least of which is her considerable PR experience and expertise.

In a world full of noise and mixed messages, she said she aims to keep Tri-Faith on point with its mission of “celebrating the diversity of our religious traditions.” “It’s beyond tolerance and acceptance and respect, it’s really about building relationships among people and celebrating those differences,” she said.

“As one of our board members, Rev. Ernesto Medina said, ‘The reason we know it’s working is we know the names of each others children,’ and that’s what it’s all about. It’s building those relationships.”

 

 

A Tri-Faith Initiative event

 

 

She said in this increasingly global space we inhabit “I think the world is having to live into a new definition of who is our neighbor. I think we’re called on to be really aware of our neighbors and getting to know them.”

Through events like Abraham’s Tent and the Tri-Faith Picnic, she said Jewish, Christian and Islamic rites are celebrated and people learn what to say or do during worship services and ceremonies. As distinct as each tradition is, Tri-Faith  reminds participants “there’s so much the faiths share — we all greet each other with peace, we’re all talking about and praying to the same God.”

She said learning how to offer peace in each faith tradition can be a profound thing, whether saying “peace be with you” or “shabbat shalom” or “as-salamu alaykum.” “Just those few simple words,” she said, “and all of a sudden you feel very comfortable. It’s those little things that take the strangeness out of it.”

Then there is the exploration Tri-Faith inspires.

“A great thing that happens with the Tri-Faith is that as you engage in interfaith work and discussions you feel compelled to learn more about your own faith. You begin to explore your own tradition. You either question or affirm or study why you believe what you do and universally you end up more attached and committed to your own faith.”

She’s impressed by how the Tri-Faith board, composed of both lay and religious, doesn’t stray from its mission.

“I’ve worked with many nonprofit boards over the years and this is truly unlike any other board I have ever worked with. They expect that everything is possible, they have committed themselves to one another to make things possible. There are really no internal politics, there’s no jockeying for position. There’s a spirit that infuses their discussions that they’re really there to do God’s work and that it’s going to happen. There’s such a certainty it’s going to happen. There’s a spirit of peace in the room that is extraordinary.”

She said internal politics don’t surface though she concedes “politics sometimes intrudes from the outside.”

She said the fallout of 9/11 played a part in Tri-Faith’s formation “in the sense that we’re all in this together and we’re the ones that have to find a solution to this, and focusing on the division is not the way.”

It’s not the first time the city’s faith groups have banded together. She said several joined forces to help feed and house Chief Standing Bear’s supporters during the great Indian leader’s Fort Omaha trial. Many were active in the civil rights struggle. A number formed Together Inc. after the ‘75 tornado. More recently, faith groups have united in calling for an end to urban violence. But the Tri-Faith Initiative is something else again. She said Rev. Medina, pastor of St. Martha’s Church in Papillion, may have best summed up the miracle of the initiative with, “This was beyond the imagination of many people but not beyond the imagination of God.”

It hasn’t all been perfect.

“There have been bumps in the road,” Kirk acknowledged, “and people who’ve gotten their noses out of joint over this or that, but for the most part even those who were a little suspicious at first have often ended up as the biggest cheerleaders.”

She’s proud of many things she’s done in her life, from her work in the arts to her entrepreneurial success to her raising two adopted children, but she’s pretty certain Tri-Faith will be her most impactful legacy, at least in terms of sheer magnitude.

She can’t imagine making a greater contribution than bringing people together.

“I think the most meaningful part of the work is when I see people come to the table and sit with people of other faiths with excitement and anticipation instead of fear. If we’ve done our job and created a safe place, a place of trust where people feel they can be authentically themselves and authentically interested in the other, that is a real place of grace.”

If heredity’s any guide, then Kirk has miles to go before she sleeps. Reflecting upon her life, her diverse pursuits have “felt to me as a continuum,” she said, adding, “They all enrich people’s lives in important ways and all involve starting something new, whether new types of arts programs, a new small business or a one-of-a-kind religious development. I like being in on the start of things…”


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